“The women fled from the tomb bewildered and trembling; and they said nothing to anyone because they were so afraid.” Is that any way to end a Gospel, and any way to begin an Easter sermon?
That sentence, which we just heard, is the end of the Gospel of Mark; and perhaps it implies that we also should say nothing at Easter. We could just sit here in silence. And would that not be better? In lives filled with troubles as well as triumphs, and in an era marked by pandemic, war, and climate change, perhaps it is better to avoid “Hallelujahs” at Easter and just keep quiet for a while.
But as you know, that would not be my way. So, I do have a few things to say about today’s Gospel reading, and about Easter in this my final Easter sermon at Mill Woods United.
Each Easter Sunday, the Revised Common Lectionary, which most churches use to choose their Sunday readings, recommends the account of the empty tomb from the Gospel of John — the one in which Mary mistakes the Risen Christ for a gardener. The Lectionary offers alternatives — in one year, the Easter story from Matthew; in the next, the one from Luke; and in a third year, the one from Mark.
But I often ignore the Lectionary, and during the nine Easters at which I have presided at Mill Woods United, I have chosen Mark’s account six times. I prefer Mark not just because his story is the earliest one, but because it includes no physical appearances of the Risen Christ. This lack reminds me that resurrection is not about a continuation of life as it was before death. It is about a radical transformation.
Mark’s story highlights that life with the Risen Christ is not what our egos want but what our souls need. Life in Christ is a move closer into the heart of Love we call God, a shift that flows from the death of illusions.
Or is this really how Mark ends? This past Wednesday, the United Church’s “Broadview” magazine published an Easter column by United Church of Canada Moderator Richard Bott. Titled “This Easter, let’s not worry that the United Church is dying,” I didn’t much like it.
For one, the Moderator’s column relies upon the longer ending of Mark, which biblical scholars teach was concocted by second century copyists of Mark. This is the ending that not only echoes the other three gospel accounts, which themselves are corruptions of Mark, but also includes this incredible statement by the Risen Christ: “Those who believe and are baptized will be saved; but those who do not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: by using my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes in their hands; and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them” (Mark 16:16-18)
I’ve been an ordained minister for almost 11 years, but I’ve never drunk poison or engaged in snake-handling. Instead, I accept the conclusion of scholars that Mark didn’t write these lines and they should never be used; and I’ve extended this skepticism to the other gospels, each of which add fanciful stories about physical appearances of a resuscitated Christ to Mark’s original version.
So, no Road to Emmaus; no Great Commission; no miraculous appearances in an Upper Room; no breakfast of fish on the shores of the Sea of Galilee; no ascension to Heaven. OK — but you might then ask, why celebrate Easter?
Each year, I celebrate Easter because no matter how dire life might seem – and surely it appears pretty dire to Ukrainians resisting Russian invasion; or to the people of Lytton BC trying to rebuild their town after temperatures of 49 degrees there last June led to a fire that burned the town down; or to those who are dealing with serious illness – there is always the Gracious reality that new life can arise in any dire moment; and that the end of life perfects this completion.
Now, when life is going well, when one’s empire is strong and thriving, and when natural or social disasters always seem to happen to people far away, we might pretend that Easter’s new life is pretty much the same as our old life. But when the opposite is the case – as it often has been for many people and as it is for many others of us today – we might be more open to a mystical approach to resurrection.
Paul put it this way when he wrote, “I have been crucified with Christ and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20).
Paul did not have an easy life. According to the author of Acts, he was often beaten, driven out of town, and imprisoned; and church legend has it that he was executed in Rome. But Paul knew the Risen Christ. This was not a physically resuscitated corpse in Jerusalem, but a spiritual reality within his own heart and mind – an inner flame that assured him that despite his many anxieties and desires, a deeper unity was graciously available to him. Paul was swept into God’s kingdom again and again through the Love he knew as the Risen Christ. He was open to new light and a new day, just as we can be.
When we encounter an empty tomb on the other side of grief, we are at a fork in the road. We will fill the emptiness with old preoccupations, or, with Grace, will we allow a Spirit of universal love to flow into us?
The ending of Mark’s Gospel presents us with an empty tomb, a proclamation of resurrection by a young man dressed in white, and a group of terrified disciples who flee and tell no one. Their loss has been so great and their grief so big that they cannot speak or act.
But after this shocking end, I imagine them regrouping and supporting one another; and as they do so, I also imagine them realizing that while their dreams of a new tribal god and king died on the cross with Jesus, the divine Christ is flickering to life within the empty tombs of their grief-stricken hearts.
It is at this point that I imagine them turning to one another and speaking for the first time the quiet but joyous words that have been shared by pilgrims on the Way of the Cross every Easter since – “Christ is Risen! Risen Indeed!”
Hallelujah, and Amen.